Why Michael Young Won’t Be A Problem In 2013

In 2012, Michael Young was a problem. In his age 35 season, Young had the worst year of his 13-year career. His .277 average was his lowest since 2002, same for his .312 OBP. His .370 slugging percentage was the lowest of his career. Remarkably, he still registered 651 plate appearances, the fourth-most on the team despite ending up with the lowest OPS of anyone with more than 200 plate appearances. The majority of those plate appearances came from the 5th position in the batting order. Only four times in 2012 did Young hit lower in Ron Washington’s lineup than sixth. 
When the rest of the offense (read: Josh Hamilton) was clicking, Young was a weakness being patched over. When the rest of the offense struggled, Young stood out as the greatest liability. As the season wore on, even some of Young’s most loyal supporters (the Dallas media) began to question the veteran. What began as an on-the-field issue developed into an off-the-field distraction.

Young had been a distraction in his career before in the media, but never during the season. During the season, Young was always the clubhouse leader, the most vocal and quotable of the group. In 2012, those characteristics didn’t change, but their potency did. Young’s leadership went from a discussion of perception vs. reality to a joke. Hearing Young talk about the team just taking it one day at a time and doing their jobs was ridiculous when he was obviously struggling to do his own job on any day.

I’m not a Michael Young apologist. In 2012, I was among the first to advocate the idea of Young only hitting against left-handed pitching. He has been one of my favorite Rangers of all time, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to reality.

With all of that being said, I don’t think Michael Young is going to be a problem for the Rangers in 2013 like he was in 2012.

Here are a few reasons why:

Playing Time

In 2008, Michael Young won a Gold Glove as a shortstop. He wasn’t the best defensive shortstop that year, but he was good enough that American League coaches elected him to win the award. The very next year, he was removed from shortstop. He was moved because the Rangers had a better option in Elvis Andrus.

In 2009 and 2010, Young was a third baseman. He wasn’t that great at it due to physical limitations, but all things considered the transition to the hot corner was serviceable. After 2010, the Rangers signed Adrian Beltre, and Young was removed from third base, because they had a better option.

In 2011, Young had a perfect role on the team as a DH and utility infielder. He was still a liability defensively when he played 3B, 2B, and especially SS, but he hit well and getting him action in the field was good insurance in case of injury, and a good method for getting Beltre, Kinsler, and Andrus rest.

In 2012, Young was placed in the same role, but this time the bat didn’t play up enough for it to work. Among players qualified as a DH, Young had the third-lowest OBP, lowest SLG, and lowest OPS. He should have been removed from the position as a full-time player. He wasn’t, because the Rangers didn’t truly have a better option.

I wanted Young to begin only facing left-handed pitching in June. To do so meant more playing time for Craig Gentry. Gentry had a hot start to 2012, but may have been over-exposed, as in July and August he hit .239/.302/.295. I think Gentry is defensively valuable enough that it still would have made the team better, but it wouldn’t have helped the offensive production any.

At the end of July, the Rangers decided to make a move to allow for Young to be played less often when Mike Olt was promoted to the big league club. Due to injuries to other players at the time, Young didn’t play any less often when Olt was in the lineup. Before succumbing to a plantar fasciitis issue, Olt played infrequently, but it’s not like he ever did anything to force his way onto the field, either. He hit .152/.250/.182 in 40 plate appearances.

Washington never put Gentry or Olt or anyone else in the lineup over Young, because there wasn’t a clearly better option. In 2009 and 2011, Washington made the tough decision to tell the team leader that he was going to have to swallow his pride and change positions, but he did that because there were better options in place. Washington never had a reason to believe he had a better option in place in 2012.

It’s the front office’s responsibility to provide Washington with a better option in 2013. Young will still be a part of the team, and will still get somewhere in the range of 450 plate appearances, but I believe it will be a priority for the front office to reinforce the Texas bench to give Washington better options. Washington may be loyal, and a player’s manager, but he isn’t incapable of doing what’s best for the team because of that.

Making Adjustments

Hitting successfully at the major league level over an extended period of time is all about making adjustments. Pitchers change their plan of attack against hitters often, and the hitters have to change right back. Up until 2012, Young was able to stay ahead of the pitchers when making adjustments. Or, he just never really had to, since his prowess at the plate has never been so much a result of his refined approach, or above average raw ability, but instead his hittability, or his artistry with the bat.

I buy more into the theory of the latter, if only because for most of 2012 Young continued to do the same thing and get the same results. Though he was never labeled as being “bored at the plate” like Hamilton, he seemed similarly ignorant of the severity of his struggles, and the need for change.

Below are two images of Young hitting a home run. The first is from April, the second is from September.

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Both of these pitches are grooved down the middle. In the first .gif, Young drives it out to right-center. In the second, he pulls a home run to left. Early in the season, Young was having trouble pulling the ball with authority, especially against right-handed pitching, which we see an example of here. It was the inevitable impact of age catching up to him. Until September, that issue continued. But look at those two images again. In the second one, Young clearly starts his toe tap, and his swing, earlier. The result is an overall quieter swing, one that is able to drive the ball to left field.

The ability to pull the ball with authority in my mind is the main reason Young went from a .345 slugging percentage from April through August, to a .478 slugging percentage in September.

He will still have to deal with the reduced bat speed that comes from increased age in 2013, but I think there is reason to believe that at least Young learned a lesson about making adjustments in 2012.

Small Sample Sizes

After the 2010 season, the same kinds of requests that are being made for Michael Young to be benched, cut, or traded were being made about Derek Jeter. The Yankees shortstop entered 2010 as a .317/.388/.459 career hitter, and was coming off of a stellar 2009, where he posted a .871 OPS. In 2010, however, Jeter sank to a .270/.340/.370 mark, all career lows. Since 2010, Jeter improved offensively in 2011, moving from a .710 OPS to a .743 OPS. He improved again in 2012, posting a .791 OPS.

One thing that both Jeter and Young have in common over the course of their careers is their unusually high BABIP rates. Jeter has a career rate of .354, and Young’s is .334. As you may know, the league average usually stays around .300. For most players, a season with a BABIP in the .350 range is a fluke, a stroke of luck that artificially inflates their statistics in that one year in an unsustainable manner. For Jeter and Young, because of their high rate of solid contact and line drives, they have sustained those high rates.

The down years for Jeter and Young were driven by uncharacteristically low BABIP rates. In 2010, Jeter’s BABIP dropped to .307, and in 2012, Young’s was at a career low .299. In 2011 and 2012, Jeter’s offensive rebound coincided with a BABIP resurgence as well to .336 and .347, respectively.

While Young’s 2012 was quite disastrous on the whole, he had a good April and his September was very strong. Not by coincidence, Young posted BABIPs of .355 in April, .330 in September, and .280, .283, .264, and .287 in the remaining four months of the year, when he struggled the most. Young’s performance at the plate in 2013 should improve, if only because his BABIP for the year should improve, based on his lengthy track record.

The decision for Ron Washington to keep playing Young was really about choosing which sample size you believe in. Coming into 2012, over 7,396 plate appearances, Young was a .304/.350/.451 hitter in his career. Then for 432 plate appearances from May to August of 2012, Young was a .256/.287/.327 hitter. One season’s worth of data is still a small sample size. Washington believed Young would turn it around, and in September, he did, hitting .313/.360/.478.

Going into 2013, believing Young will continue hitting at his September pace is putting a lot of faith in a small sample. But believing he’ll continue to be as bad as he was from May through August is doing the same thing.

Conclusion

Michael Young is going to be a member of the Texas Rangers in 2013. He’s not going to be traded or cut, mostly because of the $16 million owed to him. So this offseason, the Rangers management is tasked with finding a way to get the most value out of him.

Young is a prime candidate for a rebound year, based on the reasons for his struggles in 2012, and how he demonstrated overcoming those struggles at the end of the season. Aside from Young having a better 2013 only because of the adjustments he made at the plate, and a positive regression to the mean in his BABIP, the Rangers roster can be filled to improve the usage of Young’s playing time.

Perhaps the key to Young’s playing time being leveraged more properly is the Rangers top prospect Jurickson Profar. If he is a member of the big league team, and Andrus and Kinsler are not traded away, Young’s opportunities to get to play a middle infield position are reduced significantly. That removes much of the defensive liability aspect of Young’s game. Additionally, with Profar getting playing time at second base, and presumably Kinsler playing mostly outfield (and I assume still some second base too), that creates more DH opportunities for Kinsler, or David Murphy, and fewer for Young.

The result of Young’s down year in 2012 is that the Rangers can no longer count on him to be a major offensive weapon in 2013. The expectations have been lowered for the Rangers captain, and so to compensate for that, the roster needs to be complemented with players that can pick up the slack. Gaining better options to send to the plate would enable Washington to play Young less. Conversely, by Young seeing left-handers a greater percentage of the time, and by playing in the field less, his value to the team increases.

There were a lot of reasons that 2012 was the worst year of Michael Young’s career. There are a lot of reasons that 2013 shouldn’t be a repeat performance.


Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM

Peter Ellwood

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